Central Portugal; Sintra, Coimbra, and Fatima
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Situated near the central coast of Portugal north of Lisbon, Sintra is easily the most fairy-tale place I have ever been. Seriously, what makes this place famous is it’s fairy-tale atmosphere and the fact that it is centered around an enormous, wildly colorful castle. There is even cheery music being played along the streets of the picturesque old-town that bellows from speakers embedded in the lightposts. It’s like walking through a real-life Disneyland, only everyone speaks Portuguese, and you’re set amongst spectacular “Serra de Sintra” hills, in the quaintest hamlet this side of the Pyrenees.
All of its charm aside, the majority of the activity in the town is centered around the remarkable “Castelo de Pena”, an eccentrically colorful castle that explodes from the hillside above town. One of three national palaces in the town, it was constructed during the 1800s, making it not nearly as old as the nearby Castle of the Moors. I think that of all of the national palaces however, Castelo de Pena is the most visibly striking and heavily visited. Plus it is within walking distance of the old town area and all of its simple artisan shops, making it a focal point of tourist activity in the tiny town. The entire Sintra region exemplifies the wide-open estate beauty of the rural Iberian peninsula as it used to be, and even amongst much of the development of nearby areas the Sintra region has exquisitely maintained its old world charm.
Inland from Sintra towards the border with Spain stands the fabled University town of Coimbra, home to Coimbra University, the self-professed “Oxford of Portugal”. Founded in 1290, it is one of the oldest universities in the entire world, and has educated many of Portugal’s ruling elite. It is still a functional University to this day, and it is possible to tour the University grounds on its perch above the city, looking out at the same hillside as did students 700 years prior. The town of Coimbra also boasts a couple of cathedrals along with the college, and the entire old town area is completely abuzz with the modern hustle of student life mixed with that old world flare. Example: Local Portuguese students on ultra modern mountain bikes performing daring tricks down steep flights of centuries old stairs.
Finally, the most fascinating place I encountered in all of Portugal definitely had to be the town of Fatima. Set a mere 88km north of Lisbon, the entire town is a holy site of Catholicism dedicated to the Virgin Mary. A town that is entirely devoted to Catholic worship–and a place that I found to be more devout than even the Vatican itself–we arrived at night and went out to buy some beers before bumping into the “festivities”. In the local Fatima market after an amazing Portuguese dinner, I bumped into some Portuguese boy scouts who were also looking to buy beer (which I found strange…only in Europe). They informed me, in perfect English of course, that the best beer in the world was Portuguese “Super Bock”, for not only its rich taste, but also for it’s obscenely high alcohol content for beer.
After a few rounds of Super Bock we headed out into the main square into one of the wildest processions I have ever seen. Upon arriving in the center of town, we were instantaneously swept up into a sea of worshipers carrying crucifixes and lit torches. Meanwhile, everyone was mumbling prayers in Latin and Portuguese and hoisting statues of the Virgin Mary onto their shoulders. Once we spilled out into the main arena, we were able to behold a crowd of thousands of Pilgrims all seemingly entranced by a sermon that was being conducted entirely in Latin. Between the darkness, the torches, the amplified Latin voice, and the Super Bock, I felt exactly like Indiana Jones in the “Temple of Doom”. It was needless to say one of the more unique experiences I had in all of Portugal. I highly recommend it.